Controversial statement alert: Chris Rock is really famous. He is the type of famous wherein most people who have never seen his work still know who he is (though I cannot imagine a person who hasn’t seen – and loved – Grown Ups 2). Rock’s career has been an interesting one to follow, from his early days on Saturday Night Live to his great success as a standup comedian to his current job primarily as one of the voices from Madagascar. It has been a wild ride for Rock, who has never had the same massive cinematic success as his character in the new film Top Five, but clearly identifies with the consuming fame that he tackles therein.
Rock wrote, directed, and stars in Top Five, about a former comic named Andre Allen, looking to shed his funny image and break into dramatic features as a Haitian slave rebel in the hilariously mis-marketed Uprize. Top Five makes it abundantly clear that Uprize is a terrible film, but Andre is oblivious to that fact and embarks on a day-long interview with New York Times Reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). As the two walk around New York City, Andre reveals more than he had planned about his career, his family, his problems, and his impending marriage to reality television star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). As a rapport forms between the two, Andre awakens to the sad realities of his life, and begins to rethink the choices he has made. The eve of his wedding, however, may not be the best time for such soul-searching.
Top Five is full of great moments, not the least of which are the long stretches of Andre and Chelsea strolling around the city, debating various topics. The movie recalls Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) from Richard Linklater’s Before series in these moments – surely not a coincidence given Rock’s previous collaboration with Delpy and his status as a cinephile. Top Five doesn’t just mimic its influence, though; Rock takes great care to depict Andre in different environments, giving a full impression of a multi-faceted man. And that impression is not always a positive. Andre is a flawed character, beyond his alcoholism, and Rock embraces the opportunity to show the dark side of a character that many viewers will undoubtedly consider a self-portrait.
This painting is a little sloppy at times. Rock goes for so much in this movie, to mixed results. Other standout sequences include a lunch Andre shares with childhood friends and a montage of radio interviews, but then there are other moments that pull the pace down. A couple of extended flashbacks feature a few funny moments, but feel so tonally distinct from the rest of the movie that it can be distracting. The whole that is Top Five ends up feeling like four of five different movies stitched together, and not in a particularly effective way. The best parts of the movie contain this subtle, quiet sense of humor, so raucous scenes of graphic sexual comedy are more jarring than anything else. Rock’s attempted emotional diversity is ambitious and well-intentioned, but the execution is not deft enough to be considered successful. His better-balanced foreign influences are seen, rather than felt.
Despite this, Top Five is still satisfying. It is built on a solid performance from Rock and a great one from Dawson. Their chemistry is palpable, right up to the final scene which is cheesy, but in a really great way. Rock wisely surrounds himself with actors from whom he can coax strong performances, such as Union and J.B. Smoove, who avoid being unintentionally annoying here – a trap both actors have fallen into in the past. The mostly natural performances (looking at you Cedric the Entertainer) allow the viewer to focus on what Andre is experiencing, rather than the cuckoos surrounding him. Top Five doesn’t really shock or surprise (outside of a few good cameos), but it feels good going down. Sometimes that’s all you need.